Hot-boiled waterphone, coming up. Troels explains: “We boiled it at 4 different temperature levels and its a part of the massively multi-sampled waterphone (it’s over 2.900 samples).”

Award-winning composer Troels Folmann has made a name as a video game composer on the likes of the Tomb Raider series, as well as espousing new ideas about adaptive music for games like his “micro-scoring” methodology. But speaking to a roomful of composers and sound designers at the recent Game Developer Conference, he turned to the topic of reinvention. Even having perfected signature sounds that keep him in demand on jobs like blockbuster feature trailer soundtracks, Troels challenged attendees to get out of their usual habits and comfort zones.

And that means torturing some instruments. No, really torturing them: breaking sticks, destroying drums, warping instruments, and boiling waterphones (putting the whole instrument on a stove).

Human beings, of course, shouldn’t be tortured – to get the best sound of them, you want to get them drunk. (I want the Drunken Eastern European Choir sample library, Troels!)

Speaking excitedly in run-on sentences that clipped one another – a bit like sample in and out points were set wrong – Troels revealed some of his latest sampling explorations and sonic secrets. It was, truly, one of the best talks I saw at GDC – and unquestionably the highest idea and inspiration – to – time ratio, even if you weren’t into sound. Here are some of the gems from that conversation, along with some of the lists of bizarrely-combined sampled instruments in recent compositions.

I was looking over my notes and wondering if I should polish them. But then, I realized that I had transcribed all the things Troels said that interested me. If I put them all in a jar, I could take any one idea out on a day when my musical reserves were dry and be inspired. So I’ll share them with you in exactly that form.

The Right Wrong

Pipe organ, kalimba, baby toys, didgeridoo, conga, claps, IKEA stopwatch, church bell, vocals, ambience

One of the things I’m playing with is trying to do the right thing wrong — I call it the right wrong.

Some of these instruments [I sample] suffered through [the sampling process]. When you sample, you have to take it one step further. When it gets into the computer, it dies a bit. I don’t know what it is, there’s a translation issue. You have to push it further.


Naked Ear

Kalimba, hang-drum, IKEA flower vase, Coke Bottle, public domain vocals – girl’s choir

We have certain ways we get stuck as composers — certain harmonic progressions and so forth. What I’m trying to do is more of a naked ear. I disregard any kind of theory. If it sounds right, it is right.

It’s an awesome practice, because it allows you to step out of theory.

This is a $19 kalimba. I don’t buy the most expensive instrument — I get 90% out of this instrument. And I can torture it through sampling. IKEA is the best music store; I don’t know if you know that.

Sometimes we get super caught in [the idea that ] it needs to be pristine, it needs to be high quality — it doesn’t matter. You get it in the mix, you can totally make something wonderful out of it.

I never have anything 24-bit …. It doesn’t really matter.


No Fear

Propane drum, flower vase, Coke bottle, kalimba, monkey balls, harmonica, vocals

[On eBay], I found this wonderful drum. I have a hang drum, this super-expensive crazy drum. This one was way better, and it’s like $300.


Twist and Tweak

Didgeridoo, soda tabs, water cooler ensemble, hang drum

[On working with a Dr. Pepper soda.] You can … tap it to become percussion, you can also talk into it, sing into it … I multisampled [the taps] into an entire instrument.


It Doesn’t Matter

Things don’t matter so much. I was playing a 7-string guitar, and it wasn’t nasty enough. I took all the strings and drop tuned them to the same note … so it didn’t make a sound any more. I got this nasty sound to it. I’m starting more and more to let go of these conventions …how it should be.

I took a 5 string bass and again I couldn’t get it nasty enough — I’m not a great musician by any means. Put it down on the table, let the surgery begin. I put towels down to mute the sound. I played it with drumsticks, and got this tight sound that I was looking for.

Especially in the low frequencies of instruments, you get these … amazing, fat sounds. There’s so much you can do.

Sampling a Restroom

One of the best songs — I went to a restroom. I always use the handicapped restroom because there’s more space and you can be alone. I hate American restrooms – European restrooms are closed, you can’t see in to see what people are doing.

[On the result — multi-sampling the metal bar next to the toilet in a handicapped restroom.] You expand your palette when you do that. There are so many sounds out there.

Boiled [and timestretched) Waterphone

There’s so much you can do in terms of torture to get more out of it. Of course you can strum it, you can play it sort of percussively. But then you can boil it.

It was totally ruined in the end. But at least someone has boiled a waterphone.

We recorded it at different temperatures. It started spinning, as well, as you got to higher temperatures.

[In a separate experiment, timestretching:] As you know, the waterphone is impossible to control tonally. [I tried] timestretching a single note — [Native Instruments’ sampler] Kontakt has a harmonizer — putting some other notes on top of it to make a more strange, otherworldly sound to it.

Hybrid [Stacked] Orchestras

Unfortunately game composers are asked to do epic scores all the time. The main elements in it — it’s really about stacking. It needs several different libraries; you can’t stack the same library or it starts phasing. I like to stack until it starts phasing. You can also stack until it starts clipping.

There is no less — there’s only more.

I have synths for the bases, I have drones that line und
erneath the basses. Arpeggiators are almost mandatory for strings, so when you have stacatto notes — which is also stacked, at least two or three libraries — you also have arpeggiators under that.

It’s the art of adding, epic music.


The Future of Music

i think the future of music is partly all of us exploring more textures. We all want to do epic music and trailers …. and everyone is sounding a lot alike now. Especially in games; I never hear things that sound all that unique. We have to find ways to differentiate ourselves.

I’m a super commercial composer … I force myself to step out of that.

There are many many ways that we can stand apart. The best thing ever is the Zoom [H4 portable digital] recorder. I use it for everything, for the handicapped recording. There are sounds all over. You can break the convention, break the theory.

Successfully Sampling Choirs

The sampling is incredibly demoralizing. So you have to actually have them play a melody. If you get a performance that is not emotional, it totally dies.

We got an entire Eastern European orchestra drunk. It was a huge help. …They were half drunk, so they could still play.

Successfully Sampling Drums

Percussion is its own science. It’s important when you do recording sessions to dent the drums. If you don’t dent the drum …it won’t work. A mistake a lot of people make is …they only use one stick. Always use two sticks. The sound may flange .. it doesn’t matter. And those sticks need to break, if you want “triple-X” percussion.

Favorite Tools

Timefreezer is just incredible — you have to sculpt it in realtime, don’t just make a drone. Put it in multisamplers, map to velocity and really sculpt that tone. Put them in a sampler and assign it to a mod wheel — anything you have to do to get more control.

LA Scoring Strings is coming out — it’s the first library that’s really nailed legato. [with legato for different tempi] …solo instruments, divisi, full section.

The Wizoo W2 reverb plug-in…[now distributed through M-Audio / part of the Advanced Instruments Research group at Digidesign]

Compositional Process

Daily Exercises:

1. Watch YouTube

2. Chat and forums

3. Listen

4. Network

5. Talent = time = fun

I listen more than I compose these days. I listen two or three hours a day consciously. For me the process of listening is as important as composing.

Troels also listed some of his own inspirations, which included YouTube videos seen on this site:

Video Mashed Kutiman Funk: What if All of YouTube Played a Song?

Depressing Project of the Day: Stock Market, Set to Music with Microsoft Songsmith

What’s interesting about this is that he took these not simply as worktime distractions but inspiration for his own work – to try to analyze the thought process behind the videos and do something similar in his own work.

Here’s an example of his own: what’s the sound of one hand clapping? Well, here’s one hand clapping, made into an entire composition:

One sound composition

For more on Troels’ own sample house:


And everything on Troels himself:

Previously, right here on CDM:

Weekend Inspiration: Coke Bottle as Tribal Percussion, and the Future of Adaptive Music

CDM Interview: Tomb Raider: Legend Composer Troels Brun Folmann on Adaptive “Micro-Scoring”

There’s plenty to process here, so I hope we’ll talk to Troels again soon.

  • stk

    Fantastic stuff.
    I find this kind of stuff so much more inspiring than purely electronic sound design.

    I've not heard of Troels Folmann, but will definitely be checking out tonehammer.

  • My very favorite is when it becomes immidiatly apperent that things are stupid and wonderful at the same time.

    Yes I will be filling my acoustic guitar with water and boiling it.

  • uhhuh

    [Troels challenged attendees to get out of their usual habits and comfort zones.]
    Umm…sounds a lot like Troels is talking to industry campers to me (aka major label people) because there are plenty of people working outside theirs and most other's comfort zones and habits; producing music completely original and pushing synths to make sounds most people never get to hear thanks largely to them. With their no camping allowed unless we say so attitude they filter out independent artists in favor of a cult type setup.
    Troels should be saying, "There are so many producers out there who produce music outside your comfort zones and habits, why don't you sign them? Are your A&R people that useless? …

  • uhhuh

    Nb. Just in case the music/game-music industries have eluded some…I realize he was at a game conference but nonetheless everyone knows breaking into the music industry is virtually identical a task as breaking into the game music industry. The game corporations in general began signing artists like DJ Sasha many years ago and only the small time people (as in the music industry) use cutting edge non-major artist's work.

  • @uhhuh: Well, he was talking in part about his own personal process. And of course, sometimes there's a conflict or challenge getting signed and getting your music out there. I don't think that makes it any less relevant to look for ways to push your sound — Troels is able to do that in a way that remains eminently commercial, which I find impressive. As far as signing more interesting people, well, you're preaching to the converted. I would hope the emerging indie and mobile scenes each provide some major opportunities for that. Get the right contract with an indie producer, partner in a new title you believe in, and while you might have to do the initial work on spec, there could be some serious payoff.

  • The Google alert to waterphone with a quote said that the Waterphone could not be controlled which is beyond absurd. Since all tones can be bent or modified, the waterphone is the ultimate in control. I know as I not only invented it but perform and record with it frequently.

  • vinayk

    Best post on here since i've been reading the blog Peter. Educational and inspirational at the same time. Wish I could have been at the talk!

  • I love Troels Folmann… a personal hero of mine.

    I agree Peter, it's exceptional when you can find a way to may unqiue music with a broad appeal.

    Also, I would recommend dblue Glitch to everyone – it's my fav free VST.

    I've heard people dock it for being lazy- but I don't think so. Try exporting all your tracks to wav and then run each track through dblue Glith a few different times and then listening for the parts that work and keep those parts. That's similar to BT's method, when he used to do glitch…

    Great post, as always, Peter!

  • John Silverman

    Very cool to have this kind of musical inspiration on CDM – Process is a million times more important than any hardware or software. Let's face it, none of us are up against the limitations of our very powerful tools.

    That said, with all due respect to Troels, I'm struck that the demo examples are really quite mainstream and sound like "typical" game music.

    The problem, which @uhhuh alludes to, is that the guys making the decisions (game companies that hire composers) don't particularly have an artistic vision – and guys like Troels are just happy to have the work. Because there are much more music available then there is a "need" for.

  • Interesting points. I personally think the general quality of game music is too low – both in terms of general production values/quality, but also in terms of innovation. However the two must go hand-in-hand for commercial productions and that is a mighty fine line to cross. Innovation itself rarely works, since commercial media tends to operate within some conventions/cliches that must be embraced by the composer, however at the same time … the score should also be somewhat unique and have a soul of its own.

    But the biggest issue for game music is the general quality of the compositions IMO – especially in terms of better orchestrations, more emotional content and overall thematic quality of the compositions.

  • First off the "waterphone" pictured is a knock off and I do not consider it a waterphone. If you were to take one of my waterphone and boil water in it, you would ruin the tuning as I tune very precisely against the bottom diaphragm. The only way I would heat the bottom of a waterphone would be if I wanted to drastically retune it and that would also take some adjustments in the tonal rods else it would sound as bad as the knock offs from Germany and the USA. Yes, they have the water sound but that is about it and they should be called something other than a waterphone. Cheap is cheap.

  • Richard, at the risk of stating the obvious, I'm rather glad Troels chose to ruin a cheap knockoff and not a perfectly-tuned instrument!

    I mean, I'm a pianist — I love the old Steinways I've gotten to play. I also don't mind as a composer sampling a horribly abused, poor-quality instrument (I'm not one to abuse it myself, but one I've found). And I'll call a toy piano a piano even though, technically, it's really not. So I think it's possible to embrace both sounds. I don't think it takes away at all from the instrument you invented. There's a value to experimental sound just as there is value in refining a genuine instrument that you might have a greater relationship with over time.

  • Ryan

    Looks like an Aquasonic "waterphone."

    It may not as precise as a Richard Waters waterphone, but it still can be a useful tool for those who can't afford the real deal.

    It's Squier® -vs- G&L.

  • Okay, here's a dilemma:

    I bought a Centrance MicPort Pro from Sweetwater. It's still within it's 30-day return period, though not for much longer. I got it for field recording.

    Now, for another $120, I could've gotten a Zoom H4. The question is, keep the Centrance and use it with my MSI Wind (it does work, I've checked), or trade it up for the H4 while I have the chance?

  • bpt

    Too bad the music is just more of the usual cheese. . .

  • I read over your blog, and i found it inquisitive. yesterday i visit Conference and Events Venues. This is also a good site for information. You may also visit.


  • David Koresh

    Maybe try making an instrument that is playable and sounds good?

  • I'm such a moron. Sorry about my off-topic post earlier. If you're interested, I just sent back the Centrance to get a Zoom H4. I think I'll be happier with it.

    But in a way, this fits with the topic at hand. Troels is doing exactly what I aspire to do, using found sounds, cheap instruments, and whatever custom-built noise-making gizmos to make his music. The style and purpose of my music will be different, but technically, we're right in line with each other. So naturally, I'm curious what tools he uses. To be honest, I was surprised to see something as "humble" as the H4 as the main recorder. I'm looking forward to getting mine.

  • Rob

    Great post, very inspiring. This really highlights for me the importance of process in making music, and how knowing what goes into making the sound can make the end result more interesting. I've seen that concept mentioned on here before, and this seems like a great example. The more I know about how those crazy sounds were made, the more I like the crazy sounds.

  • stk

    Wow, some crazy angst here, seems like not a few sore/jealous spots and being stepped on.

    I for one am grateful to PK for the heads-up, and making Troels $120 😉

  • nips

    Very cool. I thought it sounded familiar so looked at the youtube links at the end, there's one showing it being used in the matrix film score.

  • That propane drum by the way is a Milltone. I'm very tempted to pick one up myself next time I feel like spending some money on an instrument. 🙂

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » GDC: Music, Games, Interactivity Pt. II, Plus Embarassing Dance Footage()

  • Chris

    To bpt:

    Troels is a colleague of mine, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. He writes great music, pushes against the restraints of our industry, and challenges the rest of us to be our best. Your comment shows how oblivious you are to the sorts of restraints that working composers face in their chosen industries. Not everyone has the 'luxury' of writing music that will never be heard outside of a tiny niche audience. Some of us write music knowing that millions of people around the world have to enjoy what we write, and we'd damn well better be sure that our music is accessible to them.

  • Pingback: Featured in CDM - Troels Folmann Personal BLOG()

  • I am a fan of Troels' work making wonderful, expressive music from everyday, and unusual items. I especially appreciate his comments about the MILLTONE tunable steel tongue instruments I make. It takes very special, talented artists to bring out what an instrument has to offer, and go beyond. I am pleased to report I am sending a MILLTONE to a New Zealand composer who has been using Propanium but wanted "the real thing". Also a movie soundtrack is being produced in Hollywood, using two MILLTONEs as I write this. I can't say more about the movie until after release, as it is in post production at the moment. I can't wait for that release.
    Finally, there are many creative people making music that never will make the "big time". It takes being able to get compositions out to the mass markets that gets the music into the collective consciousness of the world. Pushing the creative envelope, let me encourage you all with your creative endeavors, Create, Enjoy!

  • The MILLTONE (aka Propanium) is one of the – if not the most beautiful – tuned percussion I have ever played. I can only encourage everybody to visit Larry – as these drums bring an entire new flavor with them.

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Game Music Inspiration: Amon Tobin and Sony on Infamous()